Aggressive strategies dominate first weekend of League of Legends' $2 million tournament
You probably heard about League of Legends' playoff tournament that happened over the weekend -- the event's shoutcasters even claimed its livestream used more than 5 percent of all the internet bandwidth in the United States on Saturday night. When technical difficulties weren't disrupting the tense matches, two themes dominated the world championships: NA and EU struggling, and more aggressive playstyles than we've ever seen in a global tournament.
We've never seen so many teams from so many different countries come together for a LoL tournament. Twelve teams from six different regions around the world competed, and the teams from Asia quickly showed that they were there to win it. Every region has a different style of strategy that tends to dominate there. CLG.EU showcased Europe's tendency to stall opponents into late-game teamfights they know they can win, teams from Asia showcased the hyper-aggression that defines their region, and North American teams showed their ability to, well, lose quickly.
Korean teams in particular pushed the pedal to the summoner's rift metal, with NaJin Sword and Azubu Frost both attacking early, attacking often, and winning their matches in the early game. MakNooN and RapidStar, the kings of those two teams, as well as the underdogs of the Saigon Jokers all had highlight-worthy ganks within the first few minutes of matches.
The fast-paced action was a huge hit with the crowd, eliminating any slow laning phases that can sometimes be dull to watch and allowing the balance of the match to switch at any second with a well-executed or failed gank. North American team Dignitas tried to mimic that fast pace by having a dedicated roamer (Taric in their first match, and Nunu in their second) who simply ganked lanes with the Jungler, but they weren't able to produce similar results with it. Their plays felt more like a gimmick than a proven team strategy.
The hyper-aggressive tone of the tournament clearly caught the NA and EU teams off-guard, some of whom have had little to no experience playing at that tempo. Only one non-Asian team made it out of the group rounds on Thursday. CLG.EU seemed to be the only team that developed a reliable counter to the strategy by successfully stalling their opponents early in the game. They played it safe, didn't make stupid mistakes, and then forced their opponents to face them at the late-game, where CLG.EU's skill is legendary at being able to close out matches.
CLG.EU likely developed and refined their strategy during the two months that they lived in Korea around the OGN tournament, practicing against the teams there in order to prepare for the world championship. That extra preparation clearly gave them a strong advantage on Thursday and helped them break out of group play and into the quarter-finals, where fellow EU team Moscow Five (who got a by through Thursday's rounds) looked confident and held their own against the aggressive ganks of China's Invictus Gaming.
While CLG.EU was often backpedaling, Moscow 5 looked incredibly composed and in control against the blitzkrieg. IG kept things interesting early, but M5’s ability to win teamfights is so strong. M5 would get totally separated at the start of a fight, and then somehow manage to collapse, reorganize, and launch a counter-assault on the enemy team that had slightly overextended at that point, chasing them and turn it into an ace (all five enemy champions killed) for Moscow Five.
It’s tough to blame the shared failings of NA and EU teams solely all on a difference in playstyle, however. Teams like Korea's NaJin Sword and Azubu Frost are so coordinated and disciplined, that at times it look like they’re playing on a totally different level than their opponents. This is the first time that many of the NA/EU teams have ever played against some of these teams from Asia, so hopefully they will fare better next time they face.
What just happened?
By far the biggest upset in Thursday's quarter finals was Taiwan's Taipei Assassins beating Korea's NaJin Sword in the first series of the morning. The Assassins held off MakNooN's pushes for first 20 minutes and then immediately cranked it to the max with two lop-sided teamfights back to back that led to GGs within minutes. Fast sub-30 minute games like this were the norm for the tournament.
The Assassins did a great job of isolating the enemy team’s leader and target-setter MakNooN (often with clutch Blitzcrank grabs) and burning him down before his group could respond. As I mentioned last week in the tournament primer, NaJin Sword is built entirely around MakNooN and when he’s in trouble, the rest of his team will make desperate plays to save him. The Assassins used that blind loyalty to their benefit, forcing the enemy team into bad situations. The Assassins also built some of the nastiest poke I’ve seen in tournament play. Jayce, Kogma, and Orianna absolutely melted face from 10 miles away. In the last minutes, they were so strong that they dove through two towers to get a 5-0 ace with baron buff on to clear the map.
The main thing most LoL players want to know about a tournament is which champions the pros picked and how well they did with them. Energy-blasting Ezreal was easily the star of the weekend, commanding a big presence in multiple games as the AD carry that can pick off targets from range and peel from opponents that get in close. He was the only champion to get picked or banned in every single match that was played (Alistar was a close second). Future-man Jayce also had a few big games, with MakNooN in particular giving tutorials on how to kick butt with him on top lane (he believes Jayce is the best top lane champ in the entire game). But before you rush out to emulate him, remember that MakNooN is kind of crazy: he went with an oddball build of 4 Q, 4 E, no ult or W at all. But the poke damage he was outputting was just insane.
Top lane featured quite a few stand-out performances during Thursday's matches, including Azubu Frost's Shy playing a Singed that practically won their game against SK Gaming single-handedly. SK had to send three champions to stall or push Shy back, and that meant the rest of his team was free to dominate their lanes. Then the next day, Shy also used Jayce top lane to shred TSM in the quarter-finals. It was just complete domination.
Other champions that saw a lot of use and success were Skarner, Sona, and Karthus. Even Evelynn got a nice warm welcome back into competitive play, after her recent revamp, by being banned several times and finally making it onto the fields of justice on day two when Moscow Five pitted her against Cassiopeia. M5 told the press afterwards that they knew EVE was a good matchup against Cassiopeia and was confident she'd do well, which she did. They also said they were happy to beat Invictus Gaming that match, but they don’t think iG is the best team at the tournament, so they’re more worried about facing Azubu Frost in the finals, if both teams make it there.
Riot faced a plethora of technical difficulties on Saturday during the last quarter-finals series between CLG.EU and Team WE. The matches lost internet connection and had to restart 3 times, dragging the series out from noon to 8:30 PM, when Riot finally called it a night and announced that the series would be played later in the week in a different location.
Upset fans were placated by a barrage of free goodies, and I was consistently impressed by Riot's generosity towards fans during the entire three-day event. The measly $10 ticket cost certainly didn't cover the costs of this enormous stage, the free water and sunscreen constantly being handed out by Riot staff, and certainly not the piles and piles of free hats, t-shirts, and other stuff thrown out to the crowd during every break. I left with at least $60 worth of merchandise that had been given to me in the crowd, and I caught less than most.
I was most impressed when Riot started hand-delivering pizza to people sitting in the audience as the series was dragged out due to technical delays on Saturday. TSM's top lane star and pillow-toter Dyrus even grabbed some and started making sure everyone had eaten, including the no-doubt-starving CLG.EU team, who ran into the audience to get a bite between matches.
The crowd remained in generally high spirits, although there were a few boos shouted out at the lowest points. CLG.EU's stall-em-forever playstyle is not really the sort of match you want to watch eight times in a row, and during one particular boring stretch when there were no fights for literally twenty minutes, the crowd stooped to cheering for ward kills. It was a surreal, semi-sarcastic experience hearing people counting tallies for one of the most unexciting events in LoL, and hearing vuvuzelas blasting and the crowd giving standing ovations every time one little ward was whacked.
The fans present were definitely there to see local favorites TSM, but they quickly adopted CLG.EU as their "home" team after all the NA teams were knocked out of the tournament. It was very unfortunate that they didn't get to see CLG.EU's series resolve in person, but given the internet issues and the fact that LoL doesn't have a LAN mode for tournament play (a huge oversight that will no doubt be corrected after the nightmare situation this weekend), delaying the series was the best option Riot could make at the time. Riot has yet to announce a new schedule for the remaining quarter-final and semi-final games that need to take place before the finals best-of-five series happening on Saturday, but they promised that the games will be livestreamed for free, as usual.
Josh Augustine spends more time playing MMOs and MOBAs than most people spend sleeping. He’s written about them for PC Gamer as an intern, editor, and freelancer. He’s currently a game designer at Sony Online Entertainment and would love to talk with you on Twitter.